Thursday, July 16, 2015

The problems of the Lib Dems

With the Liberal Democrats declaring their new leader today, it's time to take a look at the mess they're in.

Five years ago, I asked "Nick Clegg - Sir John Simon or Sir Herbert Samuel?" It is now possible to provide an answer. And it is neither, though more Samuel than Simon.

In one regard, Nick Clegg has succeeded incredibly by holding his party together. There were a total of 58 MPs in the last Parliament - 57 elected in 2010 and a replacement in a by-election. At this past general election just one of those MPs stood as a non-Lib Dem - Mike Hancock who was expelled in a scandal and whose re-election bid was unrelated to a coalition split. A scandal also accounted for the only Lib Dem MP to resign mid-Parliament, Chris Huhne. Ten MPs stood down at the election, mostly long standing and/or elderly members, though Sarah Teather's retirement on political grounds was a sign that all was not well.

This is an impressive achievement compared to previous coalitions that saw the Liberals shed MPs either through defections to non-government parties (this happened even during the Churchill coalition in the Second World War) or due the party's departure failing to take all its members with them. There was no grand split with MPs forming an anti-coalition faction around someone like Simon Hughes, Tim Farron or Charles Kennedy. In this regard, Nick Clegg succeeded better than all his predecessors.

However, in nearly every other regard Clegg has taken the Lib Dems to a catastrophic failure.

(In one though, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the Lib Dems. He had an ambition to make the Lib Dems like the German Free Democrats. The FDP have since been wiped out of the Bundestag.)

Many explanations have been put forward but the fundamental problem is simple - the Liberal Democrats do not have a clearly identified distinctive raison d'être and a core vote based on that. I know someone will start posting the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution, but such position statements are fairly generic and in any case the preamble is not exactly widely known.

Over the years the Lib Dems have been all over the place, ranging from asserting a centrist position on the political spectrum to being to the left of Labour to radical free marketers. At a local level the situation is even worse with the party's trumpeted "localism" manifesting as a "whatever gets your vote gov" approach that has meant the party has become even more incoherent, with Lib Dems varying wildly across the country and sometimes even in the same district. Tristram Hunt is clearly biased but his piece from six years ago The Lib Dem power failure reflects how many from other parties look on in utter bewilderment as to what the Liberal Democrat vision in local government is.

And then there are two tactics that yes they are used by all parties but which the Lib Dems have turned into a fine art form. There's the demonisation of rival candidates for being insufficiently local, even when the Lib Dem candidate's own local credentials are questionable (e.g. a councillor from the far end of the borough from the constituency claiming to be more local than the sitting London Assembly Member). And there's the resort to tactical pleas with the whole "can't win here" that have squeezed rival parties. Both may deliver in the short term but neither have really converted the voters into long term Lib Dem supporters.

If the Lib Dems are to survive in the long term (and many in other parties hope they don't) they need to articulate a clear vision of what their party stands for to the public at large and grow a core vote around this vision. Their new leader has to start somewhere...

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...